When I looked at a description of this historical mystery/fiction graphic novel, my immediate thought was “Ah, a more historically accurate retelling of the Judge Dee legends by Robert Van Gulik.” I was fascinated when I discovered that, although similar, Judge Bao is based on a different historical character, Bao Zheng or Bao Gong.
The plot has many familiar elements to fans of Van Gulik. Judge Bao, accompanied by his bodyguard Zhan Zhao, page Bao Xing, and aide Gongsun Ce, is approaching the city when he is stopped by peasants in a field. He hears a tale of injustice and corruption and, worried about the state of the city and its officials, enters in disguise. The plot quickly becomes more convoluted, stretching back in history and into the unsavory world of dissolute officials, brothels, and the dark alleys of the city. Eventually, Judge Bao solves the mystery with the help of his assistants, only to find there are even darker adventures awaiting them. Judge Bao is dedicated to justice, often with a black and white approach. This is tempered by his stoic bodyguard, whose story hints at a painful past, and his cheeky young assistant.
Marty and Nie pack an amazing amount of plot into this chunky little graphic novel. Along the way, the reader sees the operations of the court, the maneuvers of a corrupt administration, life and customs in a brothel, and a variety of complex familial and romantic entanglements, both of the locals in the city and of Judge Bao’s entourage. The judge and his assistants are as fully realized as the corrupt officials they pursue. Their personalities and stories are revealed in small details and conversations, while still leaving many interesting questions for future sequels.
Nie’s art is nuanced and realistic. The black and white brushstrokes create individual characters, settings, and emotions in tightly spaced panels. The careful details in dress, facial expression, and hair styles keep the protagonists as distinct characters within the large cast and convoluted plot. Although wearing historical clothing, the people are so realistic you wouldn’t be surprised to meet them on the street. Their world of stark shadows emphasizes the emotional strength behind the black and white search for justice. While much of the art focuses on the dialogue and expressions of the characters, there’s plenty of action as well. A stunning rooftop battle, sword fights, and more keep the story moving rapidly forward.
The book is rated Mature and would best fit in an adult graphic novel collection. There’s violence and nudity (it is a murder mystery with a large portion of the action taking place in a brothel) but it’s never gratuitous or overly graphic. Readers interested in historical mysteries or rapid-action adventure will enjoy this title and look forward to the sequels.
Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix, vol. 1
by Patrick Marty
Art by Chongrui Nie
Publisher Age Rating: Mature (18+)